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Relational Generosity

2 Corinthians 8:13-15

This week I am discussing the sin of greed. Last time I suggested that greed (along with a myriad of other sins) might be masked in our misunderstanding that we might score points with God by doing or by adding Christian spirituality to our already together life. We might think we are on the right track, but sin lurks underneath and we don’t even know it. Jesus taught the young ruler of Mark 10 about his particular sin, which was greed, and although it could have been something else, this story gives us occasion to examine greed.

It seems to me that it is impossible to be greedy if one is generous, that is, a person who joyfully, sacrificially, and worshipfully gives to those things that are close to the heart of God (you might want to listen to my sermon, “Greed and Generosity” from March 16 for a full explanation of this concept). If you are generously giving, you won’t be greedy. The two just don’t coexist! So how do we practice generosity? I am convinced that the underlying power for breaking the chains of the seven deadly sins, including the sin of greed, is found in the cross. Paul makes this perfectly clear in 2 Cor 8:9, which is the central verse in his excursus on generosity.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2Co 8:9 ESV)

Jesus joyfully (Heb 12:2), sacrificially (Phil 2:5-8) and worshipfully (Mark 14:36) gave his life for us; actually he generously gave his life for us. With his generosity ever before us, how can we be anything but generous for him. And when we are – the chains of greed are broken.

There is a concept of generosity in this passage that is often overlooked, that I would like to explore. I call it relational generosity.

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2Co 8:12-15 ESV)

This passage introduces an element that might be missed – fairness. This term requires that we consider relationships, because it refers to how one person relates to another person. In these verses, Paul discusses fairness in generosity. The idea is that generosity is not determined by the amount – because some can give more than others. If the same amount were required, some would be eased and others burdened and that wouldn’t be fair. Rather, generosity is determined proportionally and according to circumstance. In this context, Paul is nurturing a relationship between the Jerusalem church and the Gentile churches in Macedonia. It is significant to remember that the Jerusalem church originated the Gospel. Shortly after its inauguration, the Jerusalem church sent out teachers and missionaries. It hosted convocations that protected doctrine (Acts 15). James, the lead pastor, sent a letter to teach the Gentile believers. We might call this spiritual generosity. On the other hand, the Gentile churches had money. They could contribute to the poor in Jerusalem. They could take up a collection and have Paul deliver it, which is financial generosity. Here is relational fairness. The Jerusalem church gave what they could give. The Gentile church gave what they could give. They both were generous to the ministry of the Gospel – the Gentiles by giving financially, generously, to the poor in Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem church by giving spiritually, generously, to the Gentile church. This is an example of relational fairness.

In the modern local church, this principle might be practiced as we give generously in order to promote fairness in relationships. Some of us can give more money than others. Others can give more time and share their own unique spiritual gifts. But everyone gives generously – and that promotes fairness.

But I want to remind us that generosity is nurtured in fellowship with others in the body of Christ according to voluntary fairness. In the KOG, fairness is not legislated. Obedience to God is always from the heart (see Romans 6:17). If it is by law, people will only participate to the extent they are required. But if it is by grace, we have the privilege of giving beyond what is required and that spells GENEROSITY.

Because Jesus was generous for us, we can be generous for him, personally (joyfully, sacrificially, and worshipfully) and relationally (voluntary generosity). Instead of greed, let’s practice generosity.

The Subtlety of Greed

Mark 10:17-31

Dennis the Menace was looking through a toy catalogue at Christmas time and made this comment: “Boy, I didn’t know there were so many toys that I wanted!” In our culture it is normal to think about giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time. In fact, it is a tremendous blessing to see the smiles a thoughtful gift brings to someone we care about. But if we think about how our culture has abused this tradition with the emphasis on merchandising and profit and Black Friday, it is not a stretch to conclude that this tradition might be fuel that feeds the sin of greed. (Actually most sin is in some way an abuse of something that began as good.) I suggest the following definition of greed: Greed is an eager (present) unrestrained ( no discipline) insatiable (never satisfied) longing expressed in the accumulation of wealth or possessions for the purpose of self-advancement. Now, to think that the average church-going believer might be greedy is quite a personal accusation. But if simply leafing through a catalogue fuels the longing for toys that previously were unknown, one conclusion is that Dennis the Menace had a problem with greed. Are we all that different? I want to consider a familiar passage of Scripture from Mark 10 to discuss this possibility.

Jesus tells the story of a young man who came to him and asked a simple question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” From outward appearances this young man was an upright and righteous person, just like most church-going Christians. Here is a man who (apparently) was humble enough to realize that he had a way to go in his life of righteousness, so he came to Jesus and asked what he could do to take the next step. This question seems like a perfectly appropriate one to pose to Jesus. But Jesus’ conversation with him demonstrated otherwise. (I am grateful to Timothy Keller whose sermon on Greed percolated many of these ideas.) Here is how Jesus heard this question. “Jesus, I know you are good and I’m also pretty good. We are ahead of most people aren’t we? But Jesus, help me out. What must I do so I can become “more good”, and make some progress – maybe even become as good as you?” Jesus went for the jugular. “There is no one good but God alone so there is absolutely no way you can ever be good. You can keep the commandments and even admit that you are not perfect, but that won’t make you good.” With that comment Jesus teaches this young man and all who are listening, that eternal life cannot be earned by doing anything. Christianity is not something we do! It is totally what Jesus has done. Neither is eternal life something we add on to an already together earthly life. This young man had his religious discipline set, since his youth, and now he wanted to add the last piece of his spiritual puzzle by coming to Jesus. However, Jesus will not be an “add on!” No one comes to the Father but by him, and him alone! So, to get to the bottom of the issue, Jesus desired to convince this young man that he had a sin problem, which was an act of love (Vs. 21). Sin separates us from God and only when our sin is forgiven can we inherit eternal life. Unless we realize that we have a sin problem, and confess that sin, and receive forgiveness that is totally based on the grace of God demonstrated by the cross, our efforts to inherit eternal life will fall woefully short. This particular man had a sin problem with greed, and to prove it, Jesus asked him to sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor and follow him. However, he went away sorrowful. How sad. Jesus brought him to the place where he could have received salvation, but his greed stood in the way.

Those who were listening to this conversation were shocked with Jesus. Vs. 26, “Then who can be saved?” If this guy cannot be saved, there is no hope for anybody. Jesus’ response is like this: “You are correct. There is no hope for anybody if they think they can do something or add Jesus to their already together life to make them pleasing to God. Salvation comes only by God’s grace.” (Vs. 27)

This particular situation was about sin that kept a young man from salvation. But how does this principle apply to those already saved? The idea is so subtle we might miss it. We come to Jesus with the same misunderstanding as this young man. We think we are good based on our good works. We think we are pleasing to God because we make sure Jesus is a part of our daily lives. But it is not about what we do nor is it about adding Jesus to an already together life. If we think it is, we are being misled and this covers up sin in our lives that keeps us from God’s best. This story reminds us that greed is one of those sins. Here is a simple question to ask that might help us discover if we have a problem with greed. I preface it by suggesting that God does not ask all believers to sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor. But here is the question – if he did, would you do it? Could you do it? If you hesitate, consider that you may have the same problem this young man had.

Greed is a bondage that grips us and has the potential to ruin us. Listen to the Apostle Paul:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1Ti 6:9-10 ESV)

This is serious stuff. American Christians fall into this trap so easily. The sin of greed is so subtle. We are more like the young man in Mark 10 than we care to admit, thinking that we are pretty humble to admit we might need to grow and that adding a little more of Jesus might actually help us be more pleasing to God. But underneath this appearance of righteousness, there lurks the ugliness of sin – and to apply Mark 10, it may be the sin of greed. How about you? Can you even consider that you might be a greedy person? But freedom from greed does not come from what we do, or from what we might add to our already together life. It comes only when we consider the cross, the ultimate solution to all sin, including greed, and that will be the subject of my next post.

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